Informal child care options are a vital, and misunderstood component of the child care ecosystem. Parents choose informal options (child care provided by relatives, parents, non-relative friends, neighbors, or nannies) for a variety of reasons, but most often it is because the formal child care system fails to meet parents’ needs. Formal child care centers operate under razor-thin profit margins and are suffering from staff shortages, which prevent many centers from better serving families by providing non-traditional hours of care and addressing transportation issues families may face and providing care at affordable costs to the community. Many formal care settings are extremely costly, which can be especially prohibitive for low-income families who face many structural barriers, in addition to not being able to afford tuition.
Informal child care is attractive to parents not only because it is more affordable, but also because it is flexible, especially for parents working non-traditional hours (i.e., those who work in retail, construction, or health care). Many parents also turn to informal care to find a caregiver who shares their cultural background, or because they have a child who may need more one-on-one care than can be provided in a formal care setting.
What is Family, Friend, and Neighbor Care?
Informal care refers to arrangements where child care is provided by a relative, friend, or neighbor, to a small number of children, often related. It is frequently referred to as Family, Friend and Neighbor care, “FFN” as defined by Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). Depending on state child care licensing regulations, there may be varying requirements for informal care providers to access public financial support. Furthermore, in some cases, the term FFN is used to imply there is a lot of either “illegal or underground” child care.
The term “FFN” is misleading. It implies relatives, friends, and neighbors are equally prevalent. BPC has repeatedly surveyed parents on this question and found that most informal care is actually provided by the parents themselves. When relatives are used the care is overwhelmingly provided by grandparent(s). Using the “FFN” term also suggests that relatives and non-relatives follow a similar set of state regulations, which is untrue.
Unpacking Parents’ Use of Informal Care
BPC’s May 2022 survey of 1,000 parents who do not use formal child care is a continuation of our commitment to understanding the United States’ child care gap. When asked to indicate their primary child care arrangement, 68% of respondents reported using care provided by themselves, their partners, or a combination. Regarding the rest of the findings, 25% of parents rely on relatives, and only 4% report using a non-relative friend or neighbor as their primary child care arrangement. Our data demonstrates care that falls under the “Family, Friend, and Neighbor,” definition is most likely to be “family.” Neighbors and friends represent a tiny portion of informal child care. Prior BPC surveys had similar findings, ranging from 3% to 5%. Rural and Native American parents, who typically experience greater challenges accessing formal child care, report similar rates of non-relative friend and neighbor care, at 3%.
Of the 25% of families that use relative care as their primary child care arrangement, 80% of that care is provided by grandparents.
Informal care is a vital facet of the child care system but understanding who is providing this care has been overgeneralized through the CCDBG’s use of “family, friend, and neighbor care.” Parents and grandparents are providing most care in this category. Given BPC’s consistent findings that non-relative friend and neighbor care accounts for a small percentage of informal child care, we encourage revaluating federal terminology from “FFN” to “relative” and “informal” care. Distinguishing the care provided by relatives from that provided by non-relatives more clearly depicts the realities of family choice and delineates differences in regulation between these groups.
Definitions should reflect parental choice. The Child Care and Development Fund, authorized through CCDBG, provides subsidies to low-income families to help afford their child care arrangement of choice, and as of FY2020, 9% of children receiving subsidies were in informal care settings. However, using the catch-all term “FFN” does not evoke the distinction between relative providers and others. Thus, Congress and the federal government needs to clarify the definition “FFN” and separate relative care, to more accurately reflect parental choices within our nation’s mixed-delivery system and the reality of limited formal care options across the country.
We still have much to learn about parents who choose informal care. Questions remain about why parents chose to depend on themselves or relatives for child care. Is the formal system too expensive? Too inaccessible? Or do parents prefer a trusted family member care for their child(ren)? Our nation’s child care system is broken, but before we expand or reform formal and family child care centers we must understand what motivates parents to use it or what prevents them. Only then can we accurately understand the true demand for child care.
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